Saturday, June 18, 2016

Sandow at Arts Journal proposes that classical music doesn't do African American musical idioms but I've got my doubts about this--what if the problem is "classical" has rejected vernacular/pop idioms and the abjection of black American music was just part of that?

http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2016/06/a-lesson-from-hamilton.html
 
One reason Hamilton hit so hard, and seemed both so current and so right, was that its music was hiphop.
 
But classical music doesn’t do hiphop. Or any other African-American musical idiom. Oh, something might creep in, now and then, but it’s coming from outside.

I have my doubts about this. Serious doubts.  It's not as though ragtime, for instance, hasn't been in any way connected to the "classical" tradition, for instance.  Or does that not "count" because of the observable influence of European parlor music?  It's still a potentially live question whether or not classical music does vernacular American musical idioms as a whole.  Plus ...
 
and one of the misconceptions George Walker has lived with for half a century is the assumption that a black musician "must" play jazz. 
 
 
and here's a link to an interview with Ethan Iverson, through whose blogging I learned of George Walker's music.
 
 
Walker's piano sonatas are pretty cool, by the way. 
 
Walker's no more obliged to write music that people would say has to sound "black" than to write music that has to sound "white".  One of the misgivings I have had about the rhetoric of "cultural appropriation" as applied to musical idioms from people of color is that when there's a complaint about cultural appropriation this seems to forget that if we listen to how Ellington dodged the attempt to define his music as "jazz" we'll miss something--in his history of Western music Richard Taruskin said that there are two broad camps on the issue of ethnomusicology that could be described as essentialist and social constructivist.  There are those who would say race is a social construct and those who consider there to be something essential in a race that is reflected in the music. 

The terms themselves would probably convey their meanings easily enough.  The way they often get used ... it can sometimes seem as if one of the simplest problems with any "essentialist" reading is that it requires people to be put in a "bucket" based on race.  I've been reading Ted Gioia's book on the Delta blues and he wrote that while there was some possibility Charlie Patton had Native American in his lineage that didn't matter because in Patton's part of the South he was a black man.  And that can sum up the limitation of an essentialist approach to the arts and to even defining race.  If you come from a mixed race lineage do you have to "pick" which lineage is "really" yours?  Why?
 
But it seems to me that when I try to remember how Ellington appealed to the history of his race in describing the music he wrote it was as if he made an essentialist appeal for the motivation to write the music but didn't necessarily invoke essentialist terms for the music itself which, I would hope this is obvious by now, he hoped anyone and everyone could appreciate. It's impossible to overlook the "cultural appropriation" of a quote from Chopin's B flat minor piano sonata funeral march at the end of "Black and Tan Fantasy".  Was that an improper cultural appropriation on the part of one of Ellington's musicians?  No, it was a brilliant musical joke that's part of a jazz classic. 
 
As Rod Dreher was arguing in the last year cultural appropriation is pretty much the whole history of art.  I'd take an extra step and suggest that what J. S. Bach did when he assimilated aspects of the German, French, English and Italian styles and maybe some Polish folk tunes here and there he was undertaking a culturally appropriative project.  Cultural appropriation certainly happens in the contexts of empires but in that sense all art reflects the empire of its time and place and the "mainstream" is the assimilative project that results.  Blues and country are more the mainstream now than classical music and if classical music has had a public relations problem it is more likely that it has looked down on vernacular and popular styles as a whole in a way that wasn't even observably the case in prior centuries. 
 
Now classical music may have a long history of doing African-American musical idioms BADLY but that's not the same thing as saying it's never found a place for vernacular or folk music.  It may not have helped that essentialist narratives have too often guided how "we" have tried to talk about musical idioms and disciplines.  Back when I was in school some teachers had a supposition that blues and jazz had this form/function relationship in which the vernacular idioms wouldn't "fit" with sonata or fugue.  I've never agreed with that idea.  I think that blues and country could ... if not easily fit into the formal/developmental parameters of sonata or fugue, they could still fit.  The only reason you "can't" write a fugue based on blues riffs or country licks is not because it actually can't be done but because too many people have dumped blues and country into some category where it's not allowed to inform 18th century contrapuntal procedures and vice versa.  But I'll just assert here that there are moments in Haydn string quartets where I heard a laconic I IV V progression and melodic riff that could have fit into a Hank Williams Sr. song.  Somewhere in the mid-50 opus numbered quartets. 
 
If Sandow's take is classical music needs to take an anti-chauvinist stance with respect to any real or perceived divides between "art" music and "popular" music I'm totally on board with being an anti-chauvinist.  I've gone so far as to argue, as a Christian that there's a theological/doctrinal/ethical imperative to side with the anti-chauvinist position.  Non-Christians are, of course, free to have some other reason to object to the chauvinist stance in which "high" art gets to look down on "low" art, or the middle-brow.
 
But to say so sweepingly that classical music doesn't "do" African American music ... I think that's a harder generalization to either make or defend.  Alex Ross wrote something about Wagner and his music and our popular imagination a while back where he proposed that the racism we read on to the Wagner cult may tell us less about them in the past than about us now. 
 
If race is a social construct then there isn't a white or a black way to use an augmented sixth chord and the conceptual/lexical possibilities in styles can be approached as art that is informed by a history of a group without collapsing the music itself into that history.  I've got no beef with an essentialist narrative for why blacks, whites and other colors of people write the music they do or how they draw inspiration to write music that expresses where they've come from, but if as some argue, race is a social construct, then musicology could maybe run with that.  Our musical notation system has its limits, obviously, but that wouldn't mean that just because live performance involves microtonal variations that our notational system can't account for that American blues somehow doesn't follow "the rules" of Western music.  The history of musical theories in the West has, at least up until the innovations of the 20th century, tended to be more of a post hoc explanation of what people liked to keep listening to than a prescription.   As a post hoc exercise in figuring out why "we" keep coming back to Haydn string quartets or blues by John Lee Hooker we're no more obliged to act as if there are "rules" that dictate what they "should have done" than to explore what they actually did in the stuff we like. If that means at some point we have to shake off some more vestiges of German Idealism, so be it. 
 

 

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